Thinking about coconuts may bring to mind softly swaying palm trees, hot white sand, and cool, aqua water—not necessarily good health. However, research on populations who consume large amounts of coconuts find they have low rates of heart disease. Furthermore, evidence is accumulating that oil from coconuts has many health benefits.

Saturated Fats

Although coconuts contain saturated fats, long demonized for their role in contributing to heart disease, not all saturated fats are created equal. The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which your body converts into monoglyceride monolaurin. Monolaurin is believed to potentially have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-protozoa properties (which destroys harmful protozoa, such as those that cause malaria).

Potential Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are much healthier than the long chain fatty acids (LCFAs) found in most vegetable and seed oils. LCFAs are difficult for the body to break down and are mostly stored as fat. MCFAs, in contrast, are smaller and easier to digest, and can be immediately converted into energy, rather than being stored as fat. Joseph Mercola, MD, who is a fan of coconut oil, says it's the richest dietary source of MCFAs.

Studies so far show that consumption of coconut oil may have promise when it comes to good heart health, immune system, and thyroid support, and healthy metabolism, which can lead to weight loss. Allison Massey, a registered dietitian, says in small amounts, coconut oil may be beneficial as part of an overall healthy diet. Scientists have found that although it raises levels of both good (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL), they believe coconut oil doesn't negatively affect the HDL/LDL ratio.

Cooking With Coconut Oil

So, how does coconut oil taste? In a New York Times blog, health writer Tara Parker-Pope describes coconut oil this way: "It has a haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor. It's even milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, and without any of the bitterness you sometimes get in olive oil."

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says vegans often use coconut oil as a substitute for shortening or butter. It imparts a tropical taste to vegetables, curry dishes, and fish. If you want to try coconut oil, but are not sure where to start, you can find many recipes online. Try, for example.

The key to getting the most benefit from cooking with coconut oil is to purchase virgin coconut oil, which is not chemically treated.

Allison Massey, RD, CDE, reviewed this article.



Sources: Web.

Clark, Melissa. "Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World." New York Times. Web. 1 March 2011.

Mercola, Joseph, MD. "This Cooking Oil is a Powerful Virus-Destroyer and Antibiotic..." Web. 22 October 2010.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation. "All about Oils." Web.

Enig, Mary G., Ph.D. "A New Look at Coconut Oil." Web. 1 January 2000.